Because his last impulsive move may have been two-handing Kent Nilsson in Game 4 in 1987, at some point the media and the fans inevitably will confuse the Flyer GM’s due diligence with inertia. But trust him, every coach you heard of and many you haven’t were checked out by Hextall before he went so far below the radar for Dave Hakstol that the media couldn’t pick up the waves with sonar.
“I had no interest in going after The People’s Choice, I went after the guy who I thought was the right guy,” said Hextall in introducing the University of North Dakota coach Monday. This guy may have a face eerily similar to Mike Babcock’s, have a last name coincidentally akin to that of the boss who just hired him. But four days of interviews convinced the GM he had found a guy who is very much his own guy, and Hexy’s kind of guy at the same time.
The “safe” choices either available -- or about to become available-- this summer all ran their course in other markets. They have won and likely will again but in Hextall’s eyes they were a little too soft, a little too hard, or a little too self-promoting, therefore exposing flaws that over time have become almost as prominent as their names. So Hextall looked for a coach who had the right answers, a track record for both winning and developing NHL-caliber players, never minding what anybody but his bosses think.
And the Flyers’ biggest boss of all believes his GM of one year did just fine.
“We have had lot of coaches without NHL experience -- Fred Shero, Mike Keenan,” said Ed Snider. “ Both were successful coaches for us and they never were Flyers, despite what I keep reading.
“I think everyone is an unknown quantity until they get here. Recycled coaches are unknown quantities, too; they lost their job somewhere else.”
Indeed, anybody Hextall could have hired would have brought baggage. The heaviest steamer trunk of all is perception but when you open it up, it is amazing the treasures sometimes found.
Forty-four years ago, when a taciturn Cornell icon named Ned Harkness was totally rejected by an aging, fading, Red Wing team, was another era and sensibility ago. Hockey thinking has come a long way since, which makes it even more amazing and nonsensical that still the only longtime NCAA coaches to be hired for NHL jobs became Hockey Hall of Famers for their work at both levels.
Wisconsin’s Bob Johnson won a Cup (Pittsburgh) and got to a final (Calgary). Minnesota’s Herb Brooks trained cynical veteran Rangers to skate rings around the Flyers in two playoffs before giving one of the greatest dynasties of all time, the Islanders, three scares.
If they could teach, then could teach adults, too, not just college kids. But there is so little difference in the talent levels of NHL teams these days – and so many dime-a-dozen competent X and O practitioners -- that motivation means everything, making it a very fair question whether a molder of college players whose scholarships are renewable from year to year will be able to relate to millionaires on multi-year contracts.
The Flyers generally liked Craig Berube, arguably, too much, sending Hextall looking for a replacement who would be no day at the beach, even for the Flyers’ most trusted stars. There is no way Hakstol’s teams would have reached an impressive seven Frozen Fours in 11 seasons without the structure that has become so critical to NHL success. But how will the Flyers respond to death stares from a guy with no NHL pedigree?
Actually, that depends on the guy.
“It’s a risk,” conceded Hextall. “We know that.”
“I feel comfortable in going through the process with Dave, asking him a lot of questions to that effect. He had all the answers that I thought were the right answers.
“He had handled a lot of high profile players, albeit before they are getting paid. So I have confidence in the way he handles people, the way he respects people. He treats people with respect.”
Hextall wanted somebody demanding, logical, and reasonable. That’s what he undoubtedly learned about Hakstol from his son Brett, who played at North Dakota, and more important, by the GM himself during marathon interviewing of a coach he believes is built to last.
“I think it’s hard to be an NHL player in this day and age,” said Hakstol, really the first message to his new team being through the media. “There are a lot of stresses and pressures along with trying to be a good player.
“There are a lot of great people in the game and on the roster here. I am going to communicate well with them, I am going to get to know them and they are going to get to know me as well. We have great people and we are going to go to work together.”
He will give homework. The GM did his homework. Wherever this new Flyers coach might be coming from, the most critical thing a thorough GM learned is that he and his hire are coming from the same place.